The second I see a man wearing a satin wedding gown hiked up over a pair of blue jeans, it's pretty clear what kind of night this is going to be.
I know what kind of night it’s going to be when I run into Alan Scalpone, lead singer for the Bitter Tears, in the line for the bathroom before the show. He’s wearing a satin wedding gown hiked up over a pair of blue jeans, and his face bares traces of white-face make-up. “Are they both taken?” he asks, making a final adjustment to his costume -- appropriate for either the men’s or the women’s room -- as the sound of trombones filters in from the green room. Thanks to this encounter, I’m more or less ready when Scalpone wanders on stage clutching a thrift-store acoustic guitar that appears to have been whitewashed, and begins singing plaintively in high falsetto. The other four members join him casually: the string bass player’s hair done up in a Peebles coif; the trombone/slide whistler sporting a Chicago Bulls singlet and not-quite-zipped cut-offs; the keyboardist costumed as Sherlock Holmes in deerskin cap and pipe; and the drummer glittery in gold lamé. The band’s first song, “Grieving,” sets a manic tone: ringing at first with sentiment and heart-ache, it builds quickly with big, brassy change-ups. There’s a moment in the song where the trombone player sets down his horn and takes up two slide whistles, playing them simultaneously in ghostly counterpoint. It’s beautiful. It’s a little mad. It’s the Bitter Tears going all out in a small-town club where, chances are, no one will understand. The band’s sound is all over the map, with damaged country laments leading directly into Dixieland stomps, roadhouse blues tromping on a maniacal Western two-step. You could draw the usual comparisons -- Waits, Reid Paley, and Man Man spring to mind -- but such a reductive approach misses what’s unique about the band... which is pretty much everything they do. For example, there's a song that, according the front man, is “about impregnating fruit” that contains the repeated, nearly hysterical line, “Was it you who got my vanilla bean pregnant?” During the piece, the singer takes it into his head to climb the stairs in the back of the club, holding his long wedding skirt knee-high as he flounces up the step. All the way up, he continues to sing, and the band continue to vamp, but the audience seems to lose the thread. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I’m up here,” he belts from on high -- it could be part of the song, or a special performance thought up on the spot. The Bitter Tears stage show is freakish in a way that’s fun to write about, but it wouldn’t work if the band’s members weren’t such skilled musicians. They remind me of Bobby Conn, in a way -- the insane theatricality layered onto real musical prowess. The finale, “Murdered at the Bar,” finds a vein of raunchy, old-jazz groove, like a return trip from a New Orleans cemetery, except, on this ride, the corpse is singing. The Bitter Tears have put together a fantastic, over-the-top live show that’s as carefully staged as Kabuki theater but still manages to feel loose and funny. It is much better than the downloads I’ll find the next day at the band’s website (www.thebittertears.com), but this only means that they are improving so fast that they haven't had time to record.